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Feb. 22, 2021, 9:55 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Charleston Post and Courier launches a watchdog project to combat corruption and “news deserts”

“Sunlight can disinfect, but South Carolina has lost some light.”

Local newspapers are, as Nieman Lab’s own Joshua Benton likes to say, basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies. Without a local news organization, you can expect to see fewer candidates run for local office, fewer people vote, and — as The Charleston Post and Courier points out in a new watchdog project — more corruption.

With Uncovered, the Post and Courier is putting abuses of power like misuse of taxpayer dollars and ethical misconduct squarely in its investigative sights. Watchdog and public service editor Glenn Smith is leading a team of five other reporters who will work with small community newspapers to report and distribute the coverage. Twelve have signed up as partners: The Chester News & Reporter, The Orangeburg Times and Democrat, The Greenwood Index-Journal, Aiken Standard, The Kingstree News, The Newberry Observer, Lancaster News, The Easley Sentinel-Progress, The Independent Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield, Pickens County Courier, Latino Newspaper, and The Sumter Item. The stories, to be published simultaneously, will be available without a subscription.

Uncovered launched with an article that connects the dots for readers wondering what “news deserts” have to do with officials indulging in zip lines, glass-blowing lessons, first-class flights, luxury resorts, season tickets, golf, and wine (a lot of wine) using taxpayer money:

Corruption is flourishing in the rural corners of South Carolina as newspapers fold or shrink coverage amid a financially crippling pandemic.

Seven of our state’s newspapers closed their doors in the past year, joining more than 60 that shuttered across the nation as the coronavirus strangled an industry already battered by shrinking revenue and draining job cuts. This only exacerbated a trend that has created so-called “news deserts” in hundreds of U.S. communities, depriving them of vital watchdogs of government and democracy.

In other words, “Sunlight can disinfect, but South Carolina has lost some light.”

Smith said the project started back in 2016 when lead writer (and 2011 Nieman Fellow) Tony Bartelme got a tip about a prosecutor in the Columbia area. The search turned up all sorts of excessive spending at the office, from a trip to the Galapagos Islands to expenses for a relative’s orthodontic work. Their celebrated coverage yielded tips about other officials in the state, which have turned into a series on law-breaking sheriffs and this weekend’s look at spending by gas authority officials. The reporters soon noticed a pattern.

“Some of the rural areas weren’t getting the same attention. A lot of this stuff is going on and people just don’t know about it,” Smith said. “What if we partnered with some papers in those areas who could bring all that institutional knowledge to the fore and we could lend some of the expertise that we’ve gathered in how to investigate some of these financial crimes?”

Smith said addressing the concerns of historically underrepresented communities is an important goal for the project. Latino Newspaper is the project’s first Spanish-language partner, and will help Uncovered reach the growing Spanish-speaking population in the state. In its first installment, Uncovered also highlighted Allendale County, a community that Smith points out has “experienced soaring poverty and unemployment, two state takeovers of its struggling school system, and three indictments of its public officials in the past five years.”

“The county, which is about 72 percent African American, is a true news desert, without a single news outlet since its lone newspaper shut down in 2015,” said Smith, referencing the [late] Allendale Sun. “Places like Allendale are the type of rural communities we hope to shine a brighter line on, places where corruption has festered with little scrutiny, harming citizens who can least afford it.”

The agreements with the partner newsrooms are flexible, Smith said. Some have reporters that want to actively collaborate with Post and Courier journalists and others want to do their own stories based on materials the investigation turns up. Smith said the team is drawing on lessons learned through working with the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica, and Center for Public Integrity in partnerships in the past.

Smith pointed out that the owners of the Post and Courier — a privately held, locally-owned newspaper — were willing to invest resources and support to launch Uncovered at a “challenging time, economically” for newspapers. It’s notable because watchdog and accountability journalism can be incredibly expensive. (The Post and Courier also hopes to raise $100,000 in 100 days to support the project.)

Part of the problem? A change to state law a few years ago led to the costs of public records requests exploding overnight, Smith said. “What might have cost you 20 to 50 bucks in copying costs costs much more now. We routinely hear, ‘We need $2,500 or $3,000 for this,'” Smith said. “Often we negotiate that down to hundreds of dollars, but we got one a few years ago where a police agency wanted $225,000 for information that was available in an electronic spreadsheet. We ended up going to court for that.”

The work is already having an impact. Less than 72 hours after Uncovered was launched, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and a handful of state lawmakers announced they wanted to close ethics loopholes on gas authority spending.

“I’m really excited to see what we can find by combining forces with these community papers,” Smith said, before the governor’s announcement. “At the end of the day, if we can uncover a bunch of this stuff around the state and really do some public good for the citizens of South Carolina, that’s a huge win.”

POSTED     Feb. 22, 2021, 9:55 a.m.
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